I have to avoid all viruses, not just COVID-19. Social distancing helps keep me safe.

March 17, 2020 10:00 am

An invisible illness, a rare inherited metabolic disorder, makes Claire Richmond at a higher risk for COVID-19 because viruses greatly exacerbate her symptoms. Every Monday, she receives intravenous treatment to stabilize and manage her symptoms. Social distancing policies also help her and her loved ones stay safe during disease spread. (Photo by Ivory House Photography)

When news of the COVID-19 contagion broke, I saw two distinct responses: zombie apocalypse-level panic and dismissal of the virus as a mild cold or flu. While the former is a bit unnerving, the latter was far more horrifying. You see, I’m one of those people with an underlying medical condition, who the CDC refers to as “high risk.”

I’ve read a lot about people who are more susceptible and those who are immunocompromised, but that’s not my situation. I have acute hepatic porphyria, an inherited metabolic disorder that disrupts the production of heme in my liver and affects my entire central nervous system. I’m considered high risk for COVID-19 because if I contract a virus — any virus — it puts me in a perilous state.

I received my diagnosis three years ago, after experiencing the organ failure and paralysis indicative of a series of life-threatening porphyria attacks. Soon after, I learned that I can stay healthy and in control of my condition by steering clear of several triggers. The food I eat, stress and specific classes of medications can all lead to flares of severe symptoms, but are more or less in my control. Viruses on the other hand, are slippery slopes.

In February 2019, I came down with the flu and it landed me in the emergency room. Not only did the extra stress of the virus wreak havoc on my immune system, it flared my porphyria and ultimately led to a severe attack. My nausea and vomiting prevented me from eating and drinking, and my incapacitating nerve pain became something I could no longer self-manage at home. My body was so worn out that once I recovered from the flu virus itself, it took me months to gain my stamina back.

I’m a public health professional by training, so I was prepared on how to take preventative measures for myself when it comes to the spread of viruses. And there’s never been a cold and flu season where I’ve thought that people were taking necessary precautions to stop the spread of illness.

For this reason, protecting myself from illness is status quo. I live the CDC guidelines day in and day out. I have two to four medical appointments per week, so I can only socially isolate to an extent and continue venturing into a world where I am trusting that others wash their hands too. But beyond that, it’s a world where my family also has to consider their exposure and what they could be bringing into our home.

Now that public policy measures are in place to “flatten the curve,” I have increased confidence that high-risk people like me will be protected as the spread is mitigated, provided we are all taking it seriously. Beyond the health of you or me, what’s at stake are the networks of our neighbors, our colleagues, our friends, our loved ones, the people who we may never see. For better or worse, these are lives that can be truly impacted by our decisions.

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